recess radio program

1/23/04
Wholly Nasrudin
    by Malini Roy

If you thought saints couldn't be funny, think again, for here comes Nasrudin, the witty and wise visionary holy man from Sufi culture, a branch of Islam. In traditional folkore all over Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan, anecdotes about Nasrudin are so popular that a dispute has been raging since the Middle Ages over which country has the distinction of being his native land.

The stories of Nasrudin illustrate Sufi mystic truths through vignettes about mundane, everyday experience. Nasrudin himself is an ambiguous figure of humor. Impossibly clever and obtuse at the same time, he is sometimes the rogue hero having fun at the expense of others, and at other times the object of their jokes. Some of the stories offer astute studies of human psychology. In one tale we meet the traveling Nasrudin who is entranced by the sight of red hot chili peppers in a foreign town. Mistaking them for delicious, exotic fruit, he buys a whole bunch and starts gorging himself on them. Soon enough, he realizes his error, but continues to torture himself. A passerby asks him the reason for such obstinacy -- he replies, "These are not chili peppers I'm eating, it's my money."

For every metaphysical quibble, Nasrudin has a ready answer. On being questioned about the nature of Fate, he answers that it is nothing but a series of assumptions. When we expect things to go badly, and they don't, we call it good luck. And vice versa. We pretend that we know the future, but when we are caught out we call it Fate.

There are fantastical elements in Nasrudin's nature that make him a very unconventional teacher. A poor man, he once goes in his usual rags to a wedding feast at a rich household, and is refused admission. He returns home and comes back to the wedding garbed in the only fine cloak he has, and is welcomed this time. He takes off his cloak and promptly begins feeding the delicacies to the cloak insisting all the while that the real guest at the banquet is his clothing, not him.

It's subtle digs like these at the established authority of the rich and powerful, that make the Nasrudin stories so attractive to people all over the world. The historical Nasrudin is supposed to have been a contemporary of the medieval Persian tyrant Sultan Jahansuz, the "burner of the world." Despite the centuries that have passed, Nasrudin and his stories can still compel children to think anew about oppressive social orders, and the meaning of a truly spiritual life. Four volumes of these tales for young people and adults have been collected by Idries Shah in English. The tales can also help to counter some of the stereotypes about Middle Eastern life and attitudes. There may be dusty, thronging bazaars, whirling dervishes and beautiful maidens trapped in high-walled gardens, but Nasrudin's playful humor and irony bring these airy Eastern cliches down to earth.

Copyright 2003 Malini Roy

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."